It was as cold as was necessary to remove the expression ‘cuts like a knife’ from the realms of the cliché. Among the inhabitants of the stone town of Argyrokastro, it was referred to as ῾διαπεραστικό’, that is, it passes right through you, just like a well-honed blade.
The water which had pooled between the smooth cobblestones that wound their way up the hill towards the castle looming over the city to which it gave its name, more ashen than silver, whispering maledictions with every assault of the daggered wing, had frozen into ice, transforming the road into a slide.
The hike up to our place of abode was thus almost impossible, and we only reached it by slipping and falling onto the walls of the houses fringing the road innumerable times. When we reached the double-storied stone home with the grey slate roof, we were as impenetrably frozen as the road and exhausted.
Vavo Makhi, a wizened old woman clad in black with a white headscarf wound around her hair and fastened with a topknot, looked up from the fire she was tending: “Ἥφερες το πουρνάρι;” (“Did you bring the yew branch?”)
My companion, her grandson, approached her and, removing the yew branch he had secreted under his jacket, placed it slowly and reverently upon the fire. Then he gestured for me to do the same. All the while, Vavo Makhi looked at me intently, hiding a half smirk of her wizened lips with her calloused hands. With a sweep of her hand, she bade me sit upon the low stool next to her. The yew branches had caught alight and the sharp staccato of their crackling filled the room.
“A long time ago, probably even before the time of Alexander,” Vavo Makhi began to intone as she poked the yew branches into place, sending sparks flying up the chimney, Jesus was born. The angels appeared to three shepherds and told them to go and prostrate themselves at his feet. They had to walk through the pitch black night in order to find him. How could they see where they were going? What if they were attacked? The shepherds, who came from the villages around here, thought of setting fire to dry branches of yew which they could hold during their long journey. The crackling of the branches was a blessing. It kept the robbers and the kalikantzaroi at bay.”
It was Christmas Eve in this southernmost city of Albania, the erstwhile capital of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. Clearing the fog from the window, I watched as a few men stumbled past, grasping flaming branches of yew. Every so often, the door of the house would creak open, propelling blasts of icy wind towards the fire. The tired and cold men would enter with their branches.
“Και του χρόνου βάβω Μάχη,” they would say, as they bent over to kiss her hand, departing soon after. “As the branches squeak and rattle, so may your wishes reach the ears of God,” the old lady exclaimed, time and time again. “God protect them and all the Christians on this terrible night,” she then sighed, crossing herself three times.
“Why terrible?” I asked. “Is this not the night that Jesus is born?” Vavo Makhi’s eyes grew wide as she clutched at the buttons of her jacket. “Yes, and the demons are angry. They are out in force tonight, trying to waylay any god-fearing Christian who strays from his path while trying to get home.”
“Surely you don’t believe in the kalikantzaroi?” I laughed. “Make no jest about them,” Vavo Makhi snapped suddenly. “They are legion and take many forms. Take Psilovelonis (thin needle) for example. He is a crafty one, that black one, with very long and thin fingers and a forked tail. He is so thin that he can squeeze in through all the cracks and keyholes of the house. Sometimes, it is food that goes missing, other times, babies – you can never tell. Then there is their leader, Mandrakoukos Zimaromitis (the dough-nosed). He holds a shepherd’s klitsa as if it’s the sceptre of a king and flits among the sheepfolds and shepherds’ trails. He knits his hat from pig hairs, but it is not long enough to cover his ears, because they are the same size and shape as those of a donkey.
On Christmas night, Mandrakoukos throws a hook down the chimney and takes food from the fire. Most of the time, he steals sheep. There are more. Anemi Kopsomesitis (the thin-waisted) has a very thin and long waist and his upper body turns round and round like a spinning top. He gets caught in the warp of the loom and breaks the yarn that is being spun. Then there is Tragopodis (the goat-footed), who is hairy, with the legs and tail of a goat. You mark my words. If I do not take precautions tonight, he will steal the Christopsomo I’ve made or soil it.”
“How come there aren’t any female kalikantzaroi, Vavo?” her grandson sniggered. “Don’t the men get lonely?”
“Bite your tongue,” Vavo Makhi breathed sharply. “There is the accursed Vervezou, the Trimouri Tzoghia, with the three faces. She is the curser of infants, the bane of pregnant women everywhere. God protect us all on this perilous night.” And she crossed herself over and over again.
Vavo Makhi’s Christopsomo, lovingly placed underneath the icons, was artfully decorated with the shape of a plough, for her late husband was a farmer and in this part of the Greek world, Christmas breads are decorated with shapes representative of the family’s occupation. “I should have placed bottles on it,” she snorted, and she made the sign of the cross over it. “For that was the only occupation my prokomenos was ever good at.” Additional small loaves were placed next to the main Christopsomo.
“These kouloures are for our animals in the village, the donkeys, sheep, and goats, they are all God’s creatures after all. We will break them up and feed them to them tomorrow so that they don’t get sick during the year.” Pointing to some Dali-esque loaves shaped like a figure-eight, she continued: “These koliantines are for my grandchildren. With God’s will, after they eat these, they will remain healthy all throughout the year. Praise God a thousand times, His Son and His long-suffering Mother. What we women suffer. Not even the Mother of God was spared the suffering of this life.”
The physical exertion of battling the elements to arrive at Vavo Makhi’s home relatively unscathed, the close atmosphere created by a chimney that appeared not to have been cleaned for decades and the knowledge that at the break of dawn, not so far away, we would have to brave the freeze once more, making our way through the mercilessly glacial town to the 18th century church of the Transfiguration for the Christmas liturgy, had made me inordinately sleepy.
I was only dimly aware of playing a traditional children’s Christmas game of lining up walnuts and then flicking other nuts at them in order to dislodge them. My vision was blurry, my aim lamentable. For a person that lacked the rudiments of teeth, Vavo Makhi was not only adept at hitting the walnuts but cracking them open and eating them as well, cackling with glee as she did so. The fire seemed a darker, blacker shade of yellow now and in my delirium, I was certain that I was a baby in a cradle, surrounded by burning yew branches, witnessing Mandrakoukos emerging from the flames, a clawed hand reaching for me …
“Άϊντε μάνα᾽ μ σήκω” came Vavo Makhi’s voice. It was the cold and her icy grip upon my shoulder that roused me from my torpor. In her other hand she held a small glass of tsipouro. “Drink it up your nose,” she urged. “Otherwise you will never get your nose to stop running. Now take yourself off to church, my son. The Saviour of the world is born. Χρόνια πολλά. God bless you a thousand times. Now go!”
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.